When Joyce Woo was 12 years old and had just completed seventh grade, she enrolled in an English class at Kishwaukee College on the advice of a teacher at her junior high. “My instructor at Kish, Ruth Blomquist, was tough, but incredibly supportive. After I finished, she asked me if I had ever considered taking more classes. I took a bunch of exams and received the opportunity to attend Kish full-time,” recalled Joyce. “Without Ms. Blomquist's encouragement, I never would have been able to do it.”
And that is when Joyce Woo’s life became an unusual and extraordinary journey.
“Kish was a good place for me because it opened my eyes to different people with different experiences,” she explained. “This allowed me to decide on the kind of person I wanted to be, and what I wanted for a career, at an early age.”
For Joyce, those different people with different experiences included faculty as well as students. “Every single faculty member I met at Kish mentored me in some way. Rufus Brown helped me to realize how applicable music is to my work and life. John Desjarlais taught me about creativity and how to be more observant of the world around me. Steve Dunn taught me to value understanding beyond memorization. Roger Layton showed me how to use my first organic chemistry model set, which ultimately led to my first research publication. Terry Martin taught me a style of learning that got me through dense material in medical school. Phil Vandrey encouraged me to embrace unfamiliar situations and people. The list goes on and on,” she said. “Some of my former teachers have passed away since I left, but I'll always remember what they taught me.”
The students she met represented a cross-section of life experience. She stated, “When you are surrounded by remarkable people, including a single mother of twin boys, a pregnant woman whose husband is fighting in Iraq, and a man who pays for his classes by delivering pianos (he also ended up obtaining a PhD in medical physics), you realize that having time, energy, and support to learn are luxuries. Furthermore, these were peers who never looked down upon me for what I didn't understand. They treated me as an equal, and I will always be grateful for that.”
After graduating from Kishwaukee in 2004, Joyce was only 14 years old. She stayed one extra year at Kish and then transferred to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). “Because I had finished my gen-eds at Kish, I was able to double-major in Molecular Biology and Chemistry, and minor in music at UIUC,” she said. She entered the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine and graduated with her M.D. in 2013. She is currently pursuing a fellowship in Pediatric Cardiology.
In 2010, Joyce traveled to Peru with other physicians and students to volunteer at CerviCusco, a women's clinic, to offer healthcare services there and at satellite clinics throughout the country. “We were performing pap smears and breast exams, and ended up setting up shop in a one-room daycare in a small village in the Sacred Valley. Even under such conditions, some patients cried when they saw us, as they had never received healthcare in their life -- I'll never forget the strength and graciousness of those women,” she stated.
The experience made her aware of inequities in healthcare around the world, even across the U.S. Inspired, she began working on a masters degree in Health Economics. She explained, “I soon learned that, despite advances in medicine over the last 50 years, issues of cost and access still prevent some patients from experiencing the best that medicine has to offer. I very deeply believe that everyone deserves equal footing when it comes to health, therefore, my generation of physicians will need to figure out how to solve some of these issues.”
Joyce currently works in a clinic as well as continuing her studies. “The only Spanish I have ever taken was the four semesters I spent in Dr. Phil Vandrey's class at Kish,” she pointed out. “And now I work in a primarily Spanish-speaking clinic. These were classes I took more than 9 years ago, and I still utilize those skills on a daily basis.”
Joyce Woo has many twists and turns yet to explore on this usual and extraordinary journey of her life. A journey that took shape in an English class one summer long ago at Kishwaukee College.